A family is urging Ottawa to step up pressure to free their daughter, Cyndy Vanier, who has been held in a Mexican prison without charge since early November on accusations she led a plot to smuggle Moammar Gadhafi's relatives.

"Get her out of there!" her father John MacDonald demanded in an exclusive interview with CBC News. 

"She's never talked to Gadhafi. She doesn't even know any Gadhafis. It's like a horror story. It's like something you'd read in a novel."

Mexican authorities last week publicly accused Vanier, 52, who runs a mediation company out of her home in Mount Forest, Ont., of being the ringleader in a plot that involved two Mexican citizens living in the U.S. and a Danish man.

It involved alleged plans to defy international travel bans and UN-imposed asset freezes to smuggle the dead dictator's son, al-Saadi Gadhafi, and his family from Niger, Africa, under assumed identities to a new life in an exclusive compound in Punta Mita near the Pacific city of Puerto Vallarta.


John and Betty MacDonald would like Ottawa to step up the pressure to free their daughter, Cyndy Vanier, of Mount Forest, Ont., who is being detained in Mexico. ((John Nicol/CBC News))

Vanier’s mother, Betty MacDonald, said there's a sense of urgency because of her daughter's worsening kidney problems and the stress of being in a jail where inmates find rat droppings in their food and cockroaches in their drinks. She said her daughter has been distraught during the short phone calls she's been allowed to make.

"We're supposed to sit here and wait for them to work at their slow speed?" asked Betty. "We feel totally helpless."

Libya mission root of trouble: family

The MacDonalds accuse Mexican authorities of a series of blunders, mistaking Vanier's fact-finding trip to Libya in July, along with her use of private chartered airplanes, and her recent bid on a beach house on the Pacific Coast, as evidence she was part of a plot to secretly shelter the Gadhafis.

"It's so ridiculous it’s mind boggling!" said her father. "She was in Libya talking to peasants and tribe leaders!"

Vanier travelled to Libya on a 10-day fact finding mission July 17, 2011, paid for by Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin which sought advice on the security situation in the country.  Rebels, with support from NATO airstrikes, were gaining ground in the eventual toppling of Libya's dictatorship and many of SNC-Lavalin's 1,000 employees working at construction sites — including a prison, an airport, an irrigation project — were forced to flee.


Cyndy Vanier has been held without charge since Nov. 10 on accusations she led a plot to smuggle and shelter family of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. ((Submitted by Betty MacDonald) )

On her return to Canada in late July, Vanier prepared a revealing report focused on alleged bombings of civilians by NATO, and "human atrocities" by Libyan rebel groups.  She sent it unsolicited to CANADEM, an Ottawa non-profit organization focused on peace and democracy to which she belongs, which in turn passed it on to Canada's foreign affairs department.

 "Several residential homes have been destroyed and civilian casualties including women and children are noted," Vanier wrote in her July 29 report obtained by CBC News. 

"Homes levelled by the [NATO]

bombing have not been reported by media however there are losses that are devastating and castastrophic in nature."

The report does not discuss any crimes or atrocities committed by the Gadhafi regime. It has been criticized by executive members at CANADEM, who when contacted by CBC News say they now wish they had never passed it on to the government.  But according to Vanier's father, his daughter claims a vice-president at CANADEM told her to rewrite it because the government wouldn't like it.

But the financial backers of the mission, SNC-Lavalin, thanked Vanier for her findings and continued to pay her for advice on the security situation.

"I was happy to learn the facts that you were able to confirm on the ground correspond to what our employees have been saying to us," wrote SNC-Lavalin vice-president Stephane Roy in an Aug. 4 letter to Vanier, obtained by CBC News.

"Hopefully, as a neutral third party, your findings will be able to shed the truth on the real events happening on the ground."

SNC-Lavalin has continued to seek Vanier's expertise and input on how to manage their employees in Libya and negotiate with the changing regime.  According to Vanier's parents, she remains on retainer with the company.

SNC-Lavalin's Roy declined CBC's requests for an interview on Monday.

Speculation about Vanier's ties to Gadhafi were fuelled by her use of Gary Peters, a Cambridge, Ont.-based security specialist, during her July visit to Libya. Though she severed ties with him in August, Peters had worked directly for al-Saadi Gadhafi in the past and served as Vanier’s bodyguard and minder during her visit to Libya in July.

Private planes searched in Canada

Even Canadian officials became suspicious of Vanier, and her use of expensive private planes to fly back and forth to Mexico. She flew into Waterloo Regional airport on Sept. 25, where she was detained by Canada Border Services Agency agents as officers scoured the plane. When a plane returned Oct. 20 to retrieve her, there was another intensive search and delay before she was allowed to board.

Her parents say planes were part of the package in her work for major corporate clients such as SNC-Lavalin. However, CBC News has been unable to reach Vanier directly, nor confirm with the aviation company she hired who was footing the bill or who else might have travelled on the planes.

Vanier's Mexican condo now seized

Vanier's lucrative work afforded her the means to recently upgrade her condo in Mexico, as she sought to move her base of operation for Vanier Consulting south for the winter.

"Doesn't matter where she lives, as long as she had access to a computer and the internet," said her father. "You can work from anywhere, and I think her idea was to continue working for them out of Mexico. That's to the best of my knowledge."

Her parents were thrilled for her as they’ve been spending winters in Mexico themselves for a decade. Vanier recently put a bid on a three-bedroom beach home, in hopes of upgrading from a two-bedroom condo a few blocks from the ocean.

Ottawa offers only consular help

"Lots of Canadians are doing it," said Betty MacDonald. "Lots of Americans are doing it. Why would this be construed as buying safe-homes for the Gadhafi family? It's bizarre."

Now, that dream home deal is scuttled and authorities have seized possession of the condo.

In prison since Nov. 10 without any charge or detailed explanation of why she’s being held, Vanier’s parents have called their local MP hoping the government will step up diplomatic pressure.

"We understand that they can't intervene in Mexican law, but they could certainly apply a little pressure," her mother said.

Gary Schellenberger, the MP for the Mount Forest area, told CBC News that Canadian consular officials in Mexico are in close contact with Vanier and her husband, who is in Mexico.

Tips on this story? Please send to Dave.Seglins@cbc.ca or John.Nicol@cbc.ca.